Gary Champion on Earth’s Reinvention

Iconic comfort brand Earth may be reinventing itself for the future, but the 1970s label is not about to leave its past behind.

Spring ’11 marked the launch of sister brand Earthies, a collection of fashion-driven comfort looks. And this fall, the label will reintroduce its original Kalso Earth logo that pays homage to founder Anne Kalso.

Gary Champion, president of parent company Earth Inc., said the business got sidetracked as the company jumped on the popular toning trend but has since found its way. “Because of the trend, [toning] became a significant part of our business, overshadowing the real heritage and authenticity of the brand,” he said. “When the category hit a brick wall, [we got] insight into who our true consumer is and that they’re into wellness rather than toning.”

While Earth footwear took a hit in 2010, the new initiatives have contributed to double-digit growth so far this year. And Champion expects the more-directional Earthies line to score big going forward. “[Earthies] reaches a broader base of consumers than Earth does,” said the executive, who has been with the firm since November 2009.

While the two labels are sold through a wide retail network, spanning independents such as The Tannery and Comfort One to Nordstrom and the Bliss catalog, Waltham, Mass.-based Earth has retail plans of its own. “We need some flagship stores,” said Champion, citing nearby Boston as the likely spot.

Here, Champion talks about the challenges of maintaining innovation in a 40-year-old brand and why wellness is a better fit than toning.

FN: How does Earth distinguish between wellness and toning?
Wellness is about treating the body well. Toning is about losing weight, burning calories. Any serious comfort shoe is a wellness shoe. [However], there are degrees of how serious the consumer wants to be in treating their body in a healthy way. Clarks and Dansko [make] wellness shoes, but it’s about the degree of wellness. What piece of technology do [consumers] want, and how well do [they] want to treat [their] bodies?

FN: With such a focus on wellness, will Americans’ health issues, such as obesity, impact Earth long term?
I don’t believe it has anything to do with obesity or “The Biggest Loser” or anything like that. [Wellness is] a lifestyle that’s not going away. You walk into a restaurant, and [people are] counting calories now. It’s all about how you treat yourself, how you look at the world and how you want to live in this world.

FN: How is the Earthies customer different from the Earth shopper?
We have moms and daughters buying Earthies. It’s a 35- to 55-year-old woman with a sophisticated taste level. We’re the most fashionable brand in some of [our] independent retailers. We’re also getting into boutiques that aren’t used to selling a comfortable shoe but would love to sell a fashionable comfort shoe. The Earth customer is one of the truest Euro-comfort customers. But they’re quirky shoes. They take some getting used to.

FN: Your Website is strictly informational. Why haven’t you introduced e-commerce?
We direct [consumers] to retailers or [e-tailers] buying our product. I prefer to [sell] through the people supporting us. I’m looking into where we can really make a statement in the online business. To run a good online business, it takes a business unit [such as] Planetshoes.com or Zappos.com. We should leave that up to the experts. [However], our site is going to change. We want to talk about the Kalso Earth shoe, about Anne Kalso and how the brand came to the U.S. We’re going to talk about Earthies as well. I don’t think we’re talking enough to the consumer.

FN: How will Earth communicate its comfort story going forward?
We’re revamping the way we talk to the market. We’ll be talking about Anne Kalso [and] where this brand came from, [particularly on our] website. There will be local advertising. We’ll get involved in local community events. Until you get to a certain size, that’s the way it’s done, through grassroots initiatives.

FN: Can customers buy comfort shoes online successfully?
It’s doable for the person who knows [a particular] brand. They’ve [likely] bought it at the independent level. If retailers are doing their jobs, they won’t lose customers to the Internet. I believe there are loyal customers who like shopping [in stores]. If you nurture that business, then nine times out of 10, [customers] will come back because they trust you.

FN: How can a decades-old brand attract young consumers?
You get them on board with the heritage of the company. And we do a lot of social media. We’re on Facebook, we have a blogger. There are ways of reaching out to that group. That’s one of the marketing strategies we’re looking at as we redefine the Kalso Earth shoe.

FN: Do you have any plans to expand beyond the women’s category?
We’re going to get [our] brands secure in the marketplace, then look at [our current] men’s business. I definitely wouldn’t try Earth in the children’s arena. Earthies is fashion-forward comfort, so I don’t see that transitioning into children’s, either.

FN: Does Earth have a green agenda, and if so, what is it?
With our brand name, we [have to] take every opportunity to become a greener business. We have glueless boxes, biodegradable soles. We use recyclable materials within our soles. We are determined to make a greener footprint where we can. It’s one of the things [the company] stands for. If it resonates with someone, so be it. It’s the right thing to do.

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